Finding right mix puts Bishop Canevin girls soccer squarely in playoff race

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Thursday, September 26, 2019 | 3:29 PM


As the Bishop Canevin girls soccer team prepared to open the season, coach Pat Egan was sure of two things: His group of returning players would be motivated by last fall’s first-round playoff loss, and they would need help from younger players to be a factor in the 2019 postseason.

Finding the right mix of driven, experienced upperclassmen and plucky freshmen was key, and Egan thought he found it. But the Crusaders were thumped 3-0 by Section 4-A foe Seton LaSalle in their opener.

So Egan went back to the drawing board and shuffled his lineup.

“We’ve just moved some people with different skills to balance the field,” he said.

The coach might have hit on something. Over their next six matches, the Crusaders went 5-0-1, built a 5-1 section record and outscored their opponents 19-3.

Seton LaSalle stopped Bishop Canevin’s run Sept. 25 with a 2-1 win. But the closer result showed the Crusaders’ progress since the opener.

“We all started not knowing how to play with each other,” senior midfielder Sienna Smith said. “We had several seniors graduate, and we had been so used to playing a certain way. Then we looked up and realized it wasn’t the same team.”

The Crusaders’ strength always was going to be defense. The unit has a wealth of experience and is populated by players who know how to communicate well.

Their performance was going to be especially crucial in front of keeper Tori Legleitner. A defender by trade, Legleitner is playing goal for the first time.

She was, understandably, apprehensive about the move but has made the transition seamlessly. She and her defensive teammates have combined for four shutouts.

“She was a good defender,” Egan said. “We just told her now she can use her hands.”

The Crusaders have shown a knack for scoring as well, posting at least five goals in three games. Ainsley Smith has led the charge, and the offense will receive another boost when Lauren Kirsch returns from a concussion.

Perhaps the most critical part of Bishop Canevin’s surge has been the play of its four freshman starters: midfielder Ava Gaitens, forward Emma Sysak, defender Josie Bochicchio and forward Ashley Lippold. Fellow freshman Annaliese Mertz also has contributed as a midfielder.

Early in the season, the freshmen were, Egan said, a little overwhelmed. Their fear mostly showed up on offense, where they seemed skittish about depriving the upperclassmen of chances to score.

But Smith said she and her teammates encouraged the freshmen to take cracks at the net when the opportunities were there. That seemed to embolden the newcomers.

“It’s been crazy how the freshmen have stepped up,” she said. “When I played as a freshman, I was more afraid than they were. They play fearlessly.”

The Crusaders appear to be firmly entrenched for a spot in the playoffs. After the Sept. 25 matches, they were 5-2 in the section and in second place, two games behind Seton LaSalle and a game ahead of third-place Carlynton (4-3).

The top four in each section qualify for the playoffs.

Now that they seem to have the right people in the right positions, the Crusaders are confident of playing games deep into the fall.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing, I think we can have a really good run,” Smith said. “I think we can go even farther (in the playoffs). If we’re not thinking about the results and just go play … and act like we always have a chance of winning, that mind set will get us very far.”

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